The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra honoured conductor Benjamin Northey’s twenty years of artistic collaboration at Monash University’s Robert Blackwood Hall on Friday night, in a repeat of the concert the previous evening at the Melbourne Town Hall. A related concert follows at the Ulumbarra Theatre in Bendigo. Ben Northey has forged a diverse international conducting career, bringing joy to players and audiences alike at home and abroad.
A fire alarm before Friday’s concert was fortunately resolved quickly. Advertised under the alliterative title “Bartók and Beethoven”, the program represented around two hundred years of musical repertoire in reverse chronological order. Deborah Cheetham Fraillon’s Acknowledgement of Country Long Time Living Here was followed by the first major work in the concert, Peter Sculthorpe’s Kakadu, a single-movement orchestral work in three sections lasting around fifteen minutes and named after the monsoonal Kakadu National Park in Australia’s north.
Premiered in the USA in Australia’s bicentennial year of 1988, Kakadu has continued to be performed since then, which is noteworthy when compared to the fate of many Australian “classical” compositions. The MSO presented the 1989 version rather than the later version with didjeridu. The acoustics in Robert Blackwood Hall melded sound colours from the strings, horns, brass, percussion and cor anglais, backed by grounding from oboes and contra bassoon, while flutes, clarinets and bassoons joined in the final burst. Sculthorpe could have been included in the promotional headlines for the concert. Today’s sensibilities may also question how indigenous some of his source material may be when divorced from its cultural and musical contexts.
Pianist Berta Brozgul, Northey and the MSO gave an inspired interpretation of Béla Bartók’s third piano concerto, composed just before the Hungarian composer’s death in 1945 in exile in the USA. This concerto deserves to be heard more frequently. Envisaged as a gift for his second wife, pianist Ditta Bartók, the concerto is more lyrical and introspective than some of Bartók’s previous compositions. The first movement’s quiet opening leads to explosions of sound but ends even more softly. The slow second movement marked “Adagio religioso” contains passages invoking Bach chorales and twilight magic. The final movement brings the concerto to an energetic close. Brozgul embodied Bartók’s music in her gestures as well as in the sounds she produced. Virtuosic demands on the solo piano throughout the concerto’s three movements were intricately interwoven with generous support from Northey and the orchestra.
After interval, the audience was treated to an expressive performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral sixth symphony, first performed in Vienna in 1808. Beethoven’s programmatic stimulus was skillfully realised by Northey and the MSO, including the dramatic transitions from country merrymaking and sudden storm to joyful thanksgiving between the third, fourth and fifth movements. The second slow movement “Scene at the brook” contains some of the many passages in this symphony that highlight the woodwinds, who received their deserved appreciation from Northey and the audience. This performance augurs well for the MSO’s forthcoming exploration of all nine Beethoven symphonies in the “Beethoven Festival” at Hamer Hall in November 2024.
It was encouraging to see that the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra can attract an enthusiastic audience in Melbourne’s southeast at Monash University’s Robert Blackwood Hall. Thanks, and best wishes for future successes are due to Ben Northey and the musicians involved in this celebratory event.
Photo credit Laura Manariti.
Rosemary Richards reviewed “Bartók and Beethoven”, presented by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, on November 3, 2023.